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Managing and Transforming Waste Streams – A Tool for Communities

How Communities Have Defined Zero Waste

Many communities across the country and around the world are working towards zero waste. An example of why one community chose to establish a zero waste goal and plan is explained in the Executive Summary of the City of Fort Collins Road to Zero Waste Plan (PDF) (43 pp, 862.19 KB).Exit

Zero waste has been defined in various ways by different entities. The following examples share how some municipalities and other organizations have defined zero waste.

U.S. Conference of Mayors

Excerpts from 2015 Adopted Resolution - U.S. Conference of Mayors: In Support of Municipal Zero Waste Principles and a Hierarchy of Materials Management Exit

WHEREAS, the concept of zero waste goes beyond recycling and composting at the end of a product's life cycle, to encompass the entire life cycle of a product, beginning with product design, and envisioning the use and management of materials in ways that preserve value, minimize environmental impacts, and conserve natural resources; and

WHEREAS, materials management through zero waste can begin to shift the fiscal burden of waste and empower industry to embrace resource responsibility by rewarding stewardship through purchasing and economic development incentives; and

WHEREAS, while industry and the federal government have variously defined and categorized zero waste strategies, it behooves the nation's cities, with primary responsibility for waste management, to devise a definition that encourages shared fiscal responsibility and legislative innovations,

NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that The United States Conference of Mayors adopts a definition of Zero Waste, and set of Zero Waste principles, that recognizes a Hierarchy of Material Management as follows:
  • Extended Producer Responsibility and Product Redesign
  • Reduce Waste, Toxicity, Consumption, and Packaging
  • Repair, Reuse and Donate
  • Recycle
  • Compost
  • Down Cycle and Beneficial Reuse
  • Waste-Based Energy as disposal
  • Landfill Waste as disposal

Zero Waste International Alliance

Zero Waste: The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.

Note: This definition was updated in December of 2018.

Seattle Public Utilities, Washington - 2004 Planning Group of the Zero Waste International Alliance

Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.

Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.

Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.

The Zero Waste International Alliance Exitdefinition has been adopted by: Arkadelphia, AR; Austin, TX; Burbank, CA; Glendale, CA; Oakland, CA; Oceanside, CA; Palo Alto, CA and Telluride, CO.

Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA)

Zero Waste: efforts to reduce Solid Waste generation waste to nothing, or as close to nothing as possible, by minimizing excess consumption and maximizing the recovery of Solid Wastes through Recycling and Composting.

State of Connecticut

Zero Waste is a philosophy and a design principle for the 21st Century. It includes 'recycling' but goes beyond recycling by taking a 'whole system' approach to the vast flow of resources and waste through human society.

Instead of viewing used materials as garbage in need of disposal, materials are recognized as valuable resources. A pile of 'trash' represents community and economic opportunity including jobs and new products from raw materials.

The zero waste approach seeks to maximize recycling, minimize waste, reduce consumption and ensures that products are made to be reused, repaired or recycled back into nature or the marketplace.

Zero Waste:
  • Redesigns the current, one-way industrial system into a circular system modeled on Nature's successful strategies–creating products and packaging that are durable, can be reused or easily recycled
  • Provides waste-based business opportunities to create jobs from discards
  • Recognizes the importance of producer responsibility
  • Aims to eliminate rather than manage waste
  • Works to end tax payer subsidies for use of virgin materials enabling reused and recycled products to compete.

Middletown, Connecticut

A Zero Waste Community can be achieved through action plans and measures that significantly reduce waste and pollution. These measures will include encouragement of residents, businesses, and agencies to judiciously use, reuse, and recycle materials, and motivation of businesses to manufacture and market less toxic and more durable, repairable, reusable, recycled, and recyclable products. The City hereby establishes an intermediate goal of reducing its residential waste stream and meeting the State's Solid Waste Management Plan goals by 2024.

San Francisco, California

Zero waste means that we send zero discards to the landfill or high-temperature destruction. Instead, products are designed and used according to the principle of highest and best use and the waste reduction hierarchy:

Alameda, California

Zero waste is a philosophy and design framework that promotes reuse, recycling, and conservation programs, but also, and more importantly, emphasizes sustainability by considering the entire life cycle of products, processes, and systems. This comprehensive systems-approach promotes waste prevention by:

  • Having products and packaging designed for the environment,
  • Reducing the materials used in products and packaging,
  • Using less toxic, more benign materials in production and manufacturing,
  • Providing longer product lives by developing more durable products, and
  • Having products that are repairable and easily disassembled at the end of their useful life.

San Jose, California

Zero waste is a perception change. It requires rethinking what we have traditionally regarded as garbage and treating all materials as valued resources instead of items to discard. Zero waste entails shifting consumption patterns, more carefully managing purchases, and maximizing the reuse of materials at the end of their useful life. Achieving zero waste entails encouraging San Jose, its residents, and its businesses to reevaluate what we view as waste.

King County, Washington

King County adopted a policy to work toward Zero Waste of Resources by 2030, meaning that materials of economic value, whether for reuse, resale, or recycling, won't be put in the garbage and end up in the landfill.

Austin, Texas

Zero Waste is an ambitious goal to divert 90% of waste from landfills and incinerators by 2040 using a "whole system" approach to evaluate and manage the flow of resources and waste created by our communities… By approving the Zero Waste Strategic Plan, the City Council established three major benchmark goals for achieving Zero Waste:
  • Reducing by 20 percent the per capita solid waste disposed to landfills by 2012,
  • Diverting 75 percent of solid waste from landfills and incinerators by 2020, and
  • Diverting 90 percent of solid waste from landfills and incinerators by 2040

Fresno, California

Zero Waste Principles promote the highest and best use of materials to eliminate waste and pollution, emphasizing a closed-loop system of production and consumption, moving in logical increments toward the goal of zero waste through the core principles of:
  • Pursuing 'upstream' re-design strategies to reduce the volume and toxicity of discarded products and materials, and promote low-impact or reduced consumption lifestyles;
  • Fostering and supporting reuse of discarded products and materials to stimulate and drive local economic and workforce development; and
  • Improving 'downstream' recycling of end-of-life products and materials to ensure their highest and best use.

Los Angeles, California

"Zero Waste" is maximizing diversion from landfills and reducing waste at the source, with the ultimate goal of striving for more-sustainable solid waste management practices. Achieving zero waste will require radical changes in three areas: product creation (manufacturing and packaging), product use (use of sustainable, recycled and recyclable products), and product disposal (resource recovery or landfilling). The City has set a goal of zero waste to landfill by 2025.

Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Mission Indians

Zero Waste has a few definitions, but the philosophy is the same – to reduce the waste that goes to landfills and incinerators to as little as possible (zero is the goal) and to redesign products, packaging and other items so that they can be reused or otherwise avoid the landfill.

County of Hawai'i

"Zero Waste" is a way of life that promotes the goal of reducing the amount of material we throw away and instead reincorporating by-products of one system for use for another system. There is no such thing as "waste" in Nature. In nature, the by-product of one system is feedstock for another system. Only humans have created this thing like "waste." Ancient Hawaiian culture lived this way before the term "Zero Waste" came to be. We can live this way again through small shifts in our daily activities. In this way, we greatly reduce our impact on Hawai'i Island's natural environment, and how much rubbish we generate, protect Hawai'i Island's natural environment, preserve our resources for future generations, and save our community tax dollars.

Oakland, California

Oakland's 2020 Zero Waste Goal is to cut the City's waste disposal by 90 percent (compared to 2005). Oakland's pursuit of a Zero Waste Goal will be guided by an environmental hierarchy for 'highest and best use" of materials and pollution prevention in all phases of production, use, and disposition of products and materials. Zero Waste goes beyond recycling discarded materials. It considers the vast flow of resources and waste through our society and economy, and moves to eliminate waste.

Pasadena, California

Zero Waste is a philosophy and design framework that promotes not only reuse, recycling, and conservation programs, but also, and more importantly, emphasizes sustainability by considering the entire life-cycle of products, processes, and systems.

Asheville, North Carolina

Zero Waste is a goal to re-design resource lifecycles so that materials are reused and waste is minimal. Discarded materials become resources that are recycled back into nature or to the marketplace to be reused again.

Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District

Though there are many definitions for Zero Waste, it is simply a "no-waste," sustainable approach to managing the production and life cycle of goods. Such an approach is very much in keeping with the Vermont traditions of thrift and conservation.


Zero Waste is a holistic approach to addressing the problem of unsustainable resource flows. Zero Waste encompasses waste eliminated at the source through product design and producer responsibility, and waste reduction strategies further down the supply chain such as recycling, reuse and composting.

Communities and governments that implement Zero Waste Programs are striving to switch from long-term waste management through disposal or incineration to value-added resource recovery systems that will help build sustainable local economies.